PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Ah, Winston Churchill.
What a juicy role for an actor.
No wonder so many skilled performers have taken it on, including Albert Finney, Rod Taylor, John Lithgow, Bob Hoskins, Richard Burton, Brendan Gleeson, Timothy Spall, Michael Gambon, Christian Slater, and – soon – Gary Oldman.
The latest is Brian Cox, who is can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him terrific in Churchill, an intense biodrama that doubles as a ticking-clock thriller that’s remarkably suspenseful even though we know what’s coming.
Not that Cox hasn’t excelled in plenty of other acting assignments, but this plays like the role of a lifetime.
Churchill, a World War II drama subtitled The Untold Story of D-Day, chronicles the 96 hours leading up to D-day in Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944, when the cross-channel assault called Operation Overlord was scheduled to take place.
Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky (The Railway Man, Burning Man, Getting’ Square, Better Than Sex), works from a screenplay by Alex von Tunzelmann that explores the political maneuvering and high-stakes decision-making, as well as the emotional impact and life-or-death consequences, of the many meetings devoted to the specifics of D-Day.
One element that’s missing is the vaunted Churchill wit, which will probably be one of several complaints that might be articulated by hobbyist historians who feel that Churchill could do no wrong.
Leading the supporting cast are the very fine Miranda Richardson as Churchill’s wife, Clementine, matching and handling Cox as Churchill every step of the way, and John Slattery as General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied forces in Western Europe during World War II, leading the massive invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe that begins on D-Day, eventually to become the 34th U.S. President.
It is Ike who must make the final, fateful decision.
But along the way, it is Churchill, depressed, battling failing health, thinking about his destiny and legacy, and exhausted by years of war, who attempts to stop the planned invasion, even though he knows that it is a critical – perhaps THE critical – campaign in this war.
Cox has a field day revealing the vulnerable side – one we haven’t seen much of on screens — of this legendary British leader, a fascinating, cigar-chomping icon whose wartime achievements were many, but who exhibited both frailty and strength throughout perilous times.
As the military leaders confer during the countdown to the D-Day landings, Churchill is haunted by guilt that so many lives were lost during World War I on the beaches of Gallipoli and the fear that past mistakes would be repeated with tragic results.
It is Churchill’s angst alone that exponentially enriches the suspense.
With his momentous speech serving as a climax , the film comes to recall without dramatically matching Colin Firth’s similar undertaking in the superior The King’s Speech.
So we’ll invade 3 stars out of 4 for the insightful and absorbing historical war drama, Churchill, featuring a dazzling and indelible outing by the never-better Brian Cox.